Just over a year since release, Media Molecule is still hard at work on the continuous development of LittleBigPlanet. Now with 25 patches and over 1.3 million user-generated levels since launch, lead architect Paul Holden sat down with GamesIndustry.biz to discuss the constantly evolving project, the importance of a dedicated community, how player's adopt new downloadable content and why creative players have even been recruited into the team.
Q: Can you give us a brief overview of your session at Montreal International Games Summit, and what you hope people took away from it?
Paul Holden: The talk fell into two main parts. The first part was looking at how games that have user-generated content require a different kind of engine. With a traditional game you've got some kind of control over what your level designers are creating and you can put hard limits and budgets on things. But with LittleBigPlanet is was quite difficult because we don't want to restrict what the player creates – we want to give them freedom.
During development we spent quite a lot of time dealing with that complexity. The second part was really focusing on this past year and releasing patches for the game that have added new content and features and maintain the quality of the game. There's over a million levels that have been published for the game so we need to make sure that every time we patch we're not going to break levels that people have created. This past year we've been doing a lot of work to improve our testing.
Q: What are the latest numbers with regards to user-generated content?
Paul Holden: The figures are obviously changing daily. The last figures I saw were there is over 1.3 million levels. Whereas typical games have a very busy first few months after release until the community finds other games to play, with LittleBigPlanet the community has remained very active over the last year and I think that's partly because we've been feeding the community with new content and features, but also because they've been creating their own levels and content and sharing it amongst themselves.
Q: The usual pattern is that there's a couple of significant DLC releases for a game, but it can quickly fizzle out six months after launch. How important for Media Molecule is it to keep that fresh flow of content to the user, to keep them topped up with new things to play?
Paul Holden: It's very important and it's something we really wanted to nurture from the beginning. By releasing regular content we keep people interested. Once we release a big pack we can see a big uptake in the number of people playing. If you look at companies like Blizzard with StarCraft, or Bungie and Valve, they look after their communities by releasing regular content and updates, and in turn the community responds well to that kind of attention.
Over the course of this year we've also been putting out features that didn't make the original disc that we wanted to get out there and let people use them. As much as anything else it's good for us to see this work that we did which didn't quite make the original disc still get out to the community and made use off.
Q: Do you see a significant spike in play as you release new online content and DLC?
Paul Holden: Yes. We can see the daily concurrent users and that definitely increases when we release, and more so when there's the big packs like the Metal Gear Solid pack. There's definitely a jump in users. Users fall into different categories. There are those who are just looking for other people's levels to play, and then there's the creatives. The creatives are more likely to buy the sticker packs and take the new content to make new levels and such. Even if there's only those creatives buying the content, everyone can benefit from that as they share their levels. That's a very important point.
Q: How do you possibly manage that level of user-created content, it sounds like a headache...
Paul Holden: It's difficult. The testing side of it becomes increasingly more important as we're going forward and making more changes. We get a lot of help from Sony, they've got a big QA team that help us with every release and we've also got an internal team that are checking the build constantly - day by day - for issues. Now we're trying to automate some of this testing to find issues pro-actively rather than waiting for a tester to find an issue and report it.
We had a beta trial before we launched the game and it was a large scale push to find the last few problems before we shipped, but we've recently restarted that beta trial process over the summer to have 500 or 1000 people helping us play the game and help spot more issues than normal. That's been a big help over the past three or four months to get regular reports back from the community who've been part of the beta. Not just on the new features we've been adding, but also if we've broken a level as a result of the changes we've made. They let us know pretty quickly, so that beta has been a big help.
Q: The game's just over a year old, so what have been the biggest lessons you've had to learn?
Paul Holden: We realised pretty quickly how important it is to ensure the quality of the releases and the patches. It's surprising that even fairly small changes that we've made have had large impacts on the community. We have limits set within the game - such as a maximum of 1000 physics objects in a level - but that's all interconnected. So if we try to bump up one of those limits to give people a bit more freedom that might increase the cost on memory. So we've learnt pretty quickly to be very thorough with those updates.
Another continuous issue is localisation because releasing all these new packs, we support 14 different languages and that's a big undertaking. It's one of the most patched games. "Patched" sounds like a negative term, but we actually patch the game for new content. We're up to our 25th patch and I can't think of any other games on the PlayStation Network that have had that many patches.
Managing that is quite a large undertaking, we're dealing with four different territories, we've got the Game of the Year disc in America so that's a fifth SKU. There's a lot of logistics involved in making everything run in these different territories and making sure they're all localised correctly and inter-operating between them. Because we need to make sure Japanese players can play with European players and so on. And these thing are being done continuously over the last year, it's been non-stop for us.
Q: And it's going to be non-stop for the foreseeable future, right? Because of the nature of what you've created...
Paul Holden: The next patch to go out is 1.21 which should have a whole bunch of new features that have been in the pipeline for some time. And then there's more planned for well into next year. Sony's been very keen for us to support the game ourselves. A lot of publishers are keen to move on once a game has been released and patched. But Sony has been very keen to give us the resources we need to support the game in this way.
Q: Do you notice trends in the levels and items that users create, outside of your DLC releases?
Paul Holden: We have community guys that keep a real close eye on that and our level designers do as well, and they're looking to see what kind of things have been created. Early on there were some interesting crazes for developing levels based on musical instruments and reproducing theme music to games. In LittleBigPlanet we get little waves and memes that develop. And as we release new content packs people think of new ways to use them that we hadn't thought of.
Q: You have the users that you call the creatives - those that are happy to make levels for other's to play and are looking at level design seriously. Do you get a sense they're also trying to challenge Media Molecule with their own creations?
Paul Holden: Interestingly, we've hired a new level designer who came from the community. He was very active and some of the things that people are creating are amazing. We know how much effort is involved in making a level to a decent quality and to see some of the levels that are being created is very inspiring to us. The Game of the Year edition shipped with around 20 community levels that had been created, and Sony got in touch with some of those guys and commissioned them to make levels. It's interesting that the people who are playing the game for fun end up getting their work incorporated into the finished product and packaged as part of the Blu-ray disc.
Paul Holden is lead architect for LittleBigPlanet at Media Molecule. Interview by Matt Martin.